Post-Recession Internet and Tumblr Aesthetics • The Greylock Glass

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Someone clearly able to multi-task – logging into Tumblr while doing his art, with a coffee on the side. Surrounded by their passions and their devices, it is not too unknown for today’s Internet users.

In the First post in this series, we looked at Caroline Young’s take on a fashionable “post-9/11” response. Here, I would say a post-2008 recession angle is equally fascinating – an event that millennials and some Gen Zs remember and can place in a particular context. However, the cultural shifts that followed were not as direct and simple as up and down heel lengths, but rather a systematic shift in how we socialized and became socialized. Technological developments have revolutionized the way people have formed subcultures, from divided underground circles to united online caverns of expressive movement.

The 2008 recession in the West spurred instability among young people, weakened the “American dream” and laid off millions of people. Meanwhile, another superpower was on the way.

Although I have no memory of when the iPhone came out in 2007, I do remember the novelty of owning an Apple product at the turn of the decade. As industries such as retail, publishing, and construction have taken a massive hit, the tech developer’s dream has become more appealing than ever. After the recession, Apple shares fell drastically, but persisted and thrived thanks to its iPhone 3GS. As Steve Jobs spearheaded Apple’s success and emerging Silicon Valley “tech-bros” such as Mark Zuckerberg dominated the headlines, the remaining optimism fell on these giants: the future of tech and , equally important, of the Internet.

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An iPhone with popular social media apps known today. Photo courtesy: Pexels.

From the big computers that weighed a house to the world at your fingertips, the internet had enormous potential. It has made the world smaller, making access to information and social contact faster and easier than ever. From 2008 to 2010, Facebook users quintupled from 100 million to 500~ million. This was the start of social media dominance as we know it today.

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Coincidentally (or, maybe there’s a bigger connection here), the same era saw nerd culture become… well, cool. Or at least, fresher than he had been. The cute girl at the back of the class could probably get away with loving anime. Your night companion never ceases to rave about Portal’s in-game universe. The Big Bang Theory (2007-2019) and Scott Pilgrim (2009) turned background geeks into seemingly likeable main characters, while the MCU hit the big screens with Iron Man (2008), aimed at mainstream audiences. Marvel’s MCU is now the highest-grossing film franchise of all time.

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A spread of Marvel comics that might appeal to collectors and MCU fans. Photo courtesy: Unsplash.

In fact, markets have capitalized on nerd culture so much that it’s not uncommon for someone or their friends, or friends of friends, to own a funko pop or DnD product. The consumerist nature of managing collectibles, attending conventions, buying games, and other forms of recreation ensures that the masses are entertained in vaguely apocalyptic political climates. It’s almost as if marketing yourself to the franchises you love and the media you consume has something to do with individualizing self-expression…

This is the inevitable point where we talk about Tumblr.

We talked about the Internet. We talked about nerd culture. Now what happens when you combine them?

Anyone online in the early 2010s will likely remember Tumblr’s role in establishing fandoms, fanfiction, fanart, and fanships. The whole community was fertile ground for fanworks under the tip of the iceberg of Facebook and Youtube. As a social media platform, Tumblr possessed a more community aspect than other fanfiction sites, in which friendships were formed and discussion threads flourished. ‘Superwholock’, a union of Supernatural, Doctor Who and Sherlock flooded the site and satisfied people’s delight with eccentric white guys and deliverable companions on missions. Harry Potter, Homestuck and the Phandom were other known spaces for young people to creatively explore their love for said media.

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Sherlock and Watson fan art, from Sherlock (2010-2017). Photo courtesy: Unsplash.

However, beyond this world of skinny British men and queer fanfiction, another Tumblr phenomenon has emerged from its artistic depths.

Styles changed. What summed up the Y2K and McBling eras dishonored the formative years of the 2010s. Twee girls and bohemian hipsters drifted away from their older sisters, and fashion became an identifier of the space you belong in, especially on the Internet.

Nowadays, it is better known as the Cult of Aesthetics.

Pinterest already had its monster grip on moodboards, but it was the community-building aspect of Tumblr that gave these aesthetics their cult following. In 2014, ‘grunge’ photography depicting street art, graffiti, Polaroids of youth groups and song lyrics against gridded backgrounds set the blueprint for the ‘grunge aesthetic’.

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The style of photography most often tagged with “grunge photography” on Tumblr. Themes include grief, alienation and mental illness. Photo courtesy: Unsplash.

It was a different flavor of ’90s grunge. Female influences such as Lana Del Rey and Melanie Martinez launched a “sad girl” nuance into the movement, grabbing teenage girls from all corners of the internet. Breaking away from its nirvana and sludge-y roots, Tumblr grunge manifested an ethereal and tragic twist in its revival. Fishnet tights, leather jackets, converses, scarves and ripped jeans or skater skirts compiled the classic head-to-toe black ensemble – however, it was not uncommon in 2016 to also adopt pastel elements.

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Someone in a leather jacket and black eyeshadow, putting on a pair of headphones and smoking in a parking lot. Photo courtesy: Pexels.

The grunge aesthetic has been a driving factor in the evolution of the internet aesthetic that surrounds us today. Additionally, the mid-2010s marked the eventual rise of 80s and 90s nostalgia, with Tumblr Grunge diverging into pastel grunge and even vaporwave-grunge – Vaporwave being a niche genre of music and art that satirized pop culture of the 80s and 90s. Deeper into the 2010s, indie bands such as Blossoms, The Garden and MacDemaco capitalized on this jangle poppish and shoegazing trend and became icons of the music scene independent.

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With the indie aesthetic reigning supreme over those with alternative interests, it was the prime soup for TikTok’s burgeoning subcultures. Cottagecore and Dark Academia would see themselves become popular hashtags on Tumblr, while E-kids drew inspiration from 2010s grunge fashion, alternative styles and Japanese makeup trends to showcase their new looks.

Younger generations have looked at these hashtags, mood boards and photographs around the importance of aesthetics and the individual, and created whole movements out of them. A brave new world could be encapsulated in a photo, phone background, or selfie. These aesthetics shared something in common: a dreamy and nostalgic longing; aspirational while simultaneously being an example of a “simpler moment”. When I see the aesthetic phenomena of the 2010s, I see young people searching for themselves, differentiating the individual within the online subculture from others, imagining a reality more quaint than their sunny bedrooms and long days of ‘school.

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An idyllic picnic with fresh fruit, a Starbucks, watercolor paint and a Polaroid camera. These items can symbolize Gen Z’s desire for comfort and artistic expression in subcultures such as Cottagecore and Art Hoe. Photo courtesy: Unsplash.

In the last article, I will examine how the covid pandemic has encouraged the shortening of trend cycles and the effect of the fashion industry on the environment. Microtrends have been covered somewhat in the commentator community; My goal is to explore how we can heal from this consumerist mindset and keep the environment in mind in our purchasing choices. I’m not a fan of blaming the individual for the ills of the industry – however, what Marie Kondo taught a generation about possessions and waste will always go some way towards mitigating the results.

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